CLEVELAND — For the first time since 1984 the women’s basketball team will be going to the big dance after beating Akron 86-68 in the Mid-American Conference championship.
Last season, the team came within 1.5 seconds of a MAC tournament championship before Eastern Michigan spoiled the trip with a 72-71 win.
A year later, the Chippewas had their ticket punched long before the final seconds at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
“This was the goal,” said head coach Sue Guevara. “To get to this tournament and win it. Last year was such a heartbreaking loss. Our players remember how they felt this same time last year.”
The Chippewas held a 71-70 lead over Eastern Michigan with nine seconds left in last year’s MAC championship game, but a missed a free-throw and a last-second layup by the Eagles sent CMU home brokenhearted. The loss was still fresh in the team’s head a year later.
“I just couldn’t understand why we lost and why things happened last year,” said sophomore guard Crystal Bradford, who was named MAC tournament MVP. “But, after winning today, it just shows that everything happens for a reason.”
CMU outscored the Zips 47-33 in the second half after holding a slight 39-35 lead at halftime.
The Chippewas opened the half on a 7-3 run to make it 47-40 with 16:47 to go, which forced an Akron timeout.
CMU stretched its lead to 57-44 with 12:53 to go, thanks in large part to a pair of three-point shots by senior guard Jalisa Olive.
“The defender was laying off me and didn’t respect my three,” Olive said.
After Olive left the game with an injury, it was junior guard Niki DiGuilio who kept things rolling from three-point range. She made three in a row from deep to extend the CMU lead to 68-50 with 9:46 to go.
The Zips cut the Chippewa lead to 12 with 5:14 to go, but back-to-back baskets by senior forward Jessica Schroll and junior forward Taylor Johnson pushed the lead back to 77-61.
With the CMU contingency chanting Guevara’s name, CMU made its free-throws down the stretch, ensuring the championship would not slip away this season.
“There were times in practice throughout the year when someone was at the line and someone would say ‘OK, there’s 1.5 seconds left, what are you going to do’” Guevara said. “We wanted to win it all this year.”
CMU won three games in three days to win the title. Entering the tournament as the No. 4 seed, the team received a bye into the quarterfinals where it beat the No. 5 seed Bowling Green 81-48 on Thursday before defeating top-seeded Toledo 66-61 on Friday.
CMU used its defense to pressure the Zips early in Saturday’s championship, forcing Akron to turn the ball over on its first three possessions of the game and led 4-0 early.
“If you have more energy than the person you’re guarding, things will turn out well,” Schroll said. “We started clicking really well on defense today.”
CMU was efficient on offense early, scoring its first 16 points in the paint and led it 18-16 at the 9:59 mark of the first half.
The Zips took their first lead of the game on their next possession when Taylor Ruper made a three-point shot to make it 19-18, which started an 8-0 run for Akron to make the score 24-18 with eight minutes to go.
The game was tied at 30 at the final media timeout, and both teams continued to trade baskets over the final four minutes of the first half.
After playing limited minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, Bradford returned to the floor for CMU’s final possession of the half and knocked down a fade-away three with a defender in her face to give her team the 39-35 halftime lead.
Twenty-eight of the Chippewas points came in the paint in the half.
As it has been all year long, the depth was strength in the win. Six players scored in double-figures, including all three seniors in Schroll, Olive and Brandie Baker who each had 14 points. Bradford and Johnson each scored 13, and DiGuilio added 12 points.
“Six years ago, CMU went to play at Akron, and it was the battle of the bottom,” Guevara said. “We lost the game on a last-second shot, but it just shows how far these programs have come. To do that, you have to put your hard hat on and go to work; you have to persevere, and you have to get quality kids; that’s what we’ve been able to do.”
As conference champion, the Chippewas receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. CMU will find out its opponent on Monday night. For the next few days, they will be enjoying the conference title.
“We get to celebrate today and tomorrow,” Guevara said. “We don’t know anything until Monday night. We will meet Monday night and find out who we’re playing and where we’re going, and we’ll start the preparation. The goal is to win all of our games in March.”